Exclusive! Costume designer Steven Noble talks Two Faces of January

Flea markets, costume houses and custom made designs were used to dress the cast of The Two Faces of January… with a helping hand from Chanel.

It is difficult to imagine a more glamorous era in Greece than the swinging sixties. Aristotle Onassis cruising the Athenian Riviera on his yacht, Jackie Kennedy by his side. Glitterati like Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly holidaying on the island of Mykonos. Directors making movies like 1964’s Zorba the Greek starring Anthony Quinn. Greece had it all.

“It was a very bohemian time,” says costume designer Steven Noble, who worked with director Hossein Amini on Mediterranean-filmed drama The Two Faces of January. “You sort of had the beginning of the hippies travelling as well, there was so much diversity going on. It was such an exciting period.”

It is amidst this golden age of travel that The Two Faces of January kicks off, atop the Acropolis no less. It is 1962, and Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Collette (Kirsten Dunst) are a sophisticated, stylish American couple touring Europe for the summer.

Daisy Bevan Oscar Isaac The Two Faces Of January

Alas, all is not as it seems. A chance encounter with a young American tour guide in Athens called Rydal (played by Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac) will set in motion a tragic course of events. What follows is a slow but superb suspense thriller.

If it sounds a couple of degrees away from The Talented Mr Ripley, you’re on the right track. Both films are based on novels by American author Patricia Highsmith, whose first book was adapted into Alfred Hitchcock, no less, for Strangers on a Train in 1951.

As we’ve come to expect from Highsmith adaptations, costumes and art direction play an important role in the storytelling; here, it’s once again a wonderfully understated take on sixties elegance. Did Noble ever feel intimidated about following in the fashion footsteps of those revered films?

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon in another Highsmith adaptation, The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon in another Highsmith adaptation, The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)

“I think that would have terrified me if I thought that,” he laughs. “I never really think that about any film I go into, you just try and do the best job you can, within the boundaries of what you’re allowed to be doing. I was almost left to do what I wanted.”

To that end, Noble absorbed himself “in all the films of that genre, from the late 50s to early mid 60s”, re-acquainting himself with European classics like La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini, Plein Soleil (France’s 1960 crack at adapting The Talented Mr Ripley), The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (the 1961 version starring Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty) and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle.

Kirsten Dunst Viggo Mortensen The Two Faces of January

Noble estimates that of the 3000 outfits used in the film, around 80 per cent were vintage, sourced mainly from secondhand shops, flea markets and costume houses like Angels and Movietone in London. However, having to dress up to 300 extras in the background sometimes necessitated looking further afield – especially since Noble and his team were meticulous in their attention to detail.

As Mortensen has previously noted, “a lot of times, even in big movies, people in the deep background might not always be dressed appropriately in terms of the quality of the costume or the period. Or their wigs will be kind of crooked. There’s just not as much care taken. With this movie, every single person in the background or that we walk past, whether it was in Greece or the Grand Bazaar, looked right. It makes you feel like you’re there.”

Kirsten Dunst in The Two Faces of January

“I like to visit the costume houses where we’re actually filming,” admits Noble. “If we were filming in Istanbul, it would only be right to source some of the costumes from there for more of an authentic look. So there were bits and pieces from costume houses in Turkey and Greece too. And then also, luckily, you go ahead of time before you start filming and scour all the local flea markets and vintage shops and pick up some pieces as well to mix in. It was a very eclectic amalgamation of things from everywhere, all around the world.”

For Rydal, Noble dressed Isaac in as many Greek labels from the period as he could find, to reflect someone who had been living in Athens for two years.

Rydal (Oscar Isaac) in The Two Faces of January

Still, director Hossein Amini and Noble were both keen that The Two Faces Of January never feel like a stuffy period piece.

“Obviously we wanted the period to come through…to have the essence of 1962,” says Noble. “But we also wanted to make it contemporary so it would look fresh and more exciting rather than some old foisty costume drama.”

As such, while Dunst’s smart daywear is predominantly bespoke costuming, designed using digital reprints of original fabrics, her accessories (e.g. hats and gloves) are minimal for a woman of her standing – Noble’s contemporary nod.

The Two Faces Of January - Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst in Athens

It is this attention to detail through a contemporary costume lens that really carries the entire film. It is no accident, for example, that in the opening scene Chester’s cream linen suit and Colette’s pale lemon dress complement the cool marble of the Parthenon steps.

“It just felt right they shouldn’t pop from their surroundings,” says Noble. “A normal design you’d think, let’s try to put them in a completely different colour to what the background was. But (considering) what colour the stone was, what the light was like… it felt so right to keep it in that palette.”

Indeed, that one cream linen suit of Chester’s is practically a character of its own, requiring a lot of “metamorphic” changes from Noble to get it just so.

The Two Faces of January on location in Crete

“I slightly backdated it to start off with, and gave it a half belt, 40s/50s silhouette and slightly bigger shoulder and slightly wider trouser,” says Noble. “And once I’d toiled it and seen it, it felt completely wrong. This was a modern man from New York, so we decided he would visit his tailor with his fabric and his pattern and have it made up in different fabrics.”

Of course, it is Colette who steals the show with her fabulous slimline wardrobe. Gone are the big petticoats of the 50s and in their place hang slimmer hemlines just below the knee.

“We chatted on the phone to see what colours we liked, I called in lots of original garments and fabrics from all over the world and made it an Aladdin’s Cave, a vintage emporium, and we spent a couple of days trying different silhouettes on and taking it from there,” says Noble. “We had a really good laugh, it was really good fun.”

Kirsten Dunst's great fashion in Two Faces of January

All of Kirsten’s accessories were also based on original designs – including the stunning pearls Colette wears out for dinner, which were loaned by Chanel. (Luckily, says Noble, Chanel had just launched a classic collection based on late 20s, early 30s designs.)

“I always try and read the novel (of the adaptation),” says Noble, who has designed or assisted on previous book adaptations such as Wuthering Heights, Never Let Me Go, The Beach and Bridget Jones Diary. “There’s always something in the book, even if it’s just one line, that can take you on a whole journey.”

Daisy Bevan, Oscar Isaac, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst The Two Faces of January

Such as those infamous “enormous panties” Bridget Jones wears in the original film??

“Well yes, those were clearly written in the book,” he says, chuckling, “those iconic pants. That required a lot of sourcing of big pants. And trying on.”

Alas, he is gone before I can find out which ones were eventually cast.

The Two Faces of January opens in cinemas today.

the author

Marie C

Feature writer by trade, movie maniac by night, Marie-Christine grew up watching films from the projection booth at the local drive-in and now she's lucky enough to write about them.

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